Leviticus 8:36 (KJV)
36 So Aaron and his sons did all things which the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.
Leviticus 8:36, shown above, sets the precedent for the grievance of Nadab and Abihu that occurs in chapter ten. Everything about the Tabernacle, it’s ritual functions and priestly services, corresponds directly to the way it had been build; “according to the pattern” that God had given Moses. Between Exodus and Leviticus, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of following through with God’s commandments exactly the way God had given them. The priesthood, Moses, and the craftsmen were expected to follow through with ever aspect of the Tabernacle exactly as God had commanded. Thus, by the time you reach the activity of Aaron’s sons, one has followed a rather extensive journey that reiterates their “doing all” that the Lord had commanded them to do. This is at the center of Nadab and Abihu’s trespass.
Of course, many presume that Nadab and Abihu offered incense with coals that were not from the altar, or perhaps, they offered the burning incense at the wrong time, or that they were intoxicated with wine, thus approaching the task with nonchalance and enibriation. However, based up 10:3, they simply failed to sanctify the Lord when they drew near to Him.
Leviticus 10:3 (KJV) Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.
There is another moment in Israel’s history where these words are specifically used! However, in such an instance physical death does not occur, though a great punishment does.
Numbers 20:12 (KJV) And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
Moses’ actions with the rod and the rock resulted in his restriction to enter the Promised Land because he did not “sanctify” the Lord in the eyes of the people. Based upon this, the actions of Nadab and Abihu are rather tragic since they served as the “first” individuals to deviate (whether in character, sobriety, or in ritual) from divine pattern or commandment. In truth, God was left with little option since any leniency could run the risk of setting a future precedent for the priesthood as it related to the house of God.
The severity of God’s judgment served, not only to punish Aaron’s sons, but to engrave in the minds of the priesthood and the people that the “act of drawing near” to God’s presence necessitated a radical commitment to the pattern and outline of God’s specific pattern, both in approach and in ritual.